In harmony with ancestors: highlights of the 14th Gwangju Biennale
Jun 17, 2023
The title of this year’s 14th edition of Gwangju Biennale, soft and weak like water, comes from the Chinese text known as the Tao Te Ching. The philosophical and spiritual book was written around 400 BCE, credited to the founder of Taoism Lao Tzu. The philosophy of Taoism as a whole holds value in the balance of life, and encourages people to be in touch with spirituality, all in consonance with the Tao (the natural order of the universe). The subject of water and ancestry are an important part of the Taoist way of life, and although the biennale does not make direct reference to these ancient teachings, such elements echo throughout the exhibition halls. In Taoist texts, water is associated with the instinctive yielding of nature as it navigates around problems that interrupt daily lives, and one of the ethical precepts according to Taoism is that one should be in harmony with the family and ancestors.
Though reflected in the biennale's four sections, namely Luminous Halo, Ancestral Voices, Transient Sovereignty, and Planetary Times, the effortless flow of water and its connection with values and traditions can be most prominently observed in the Ancestral Voices node. In this section, the element comes into contact with age-long geopolitical issues such as the brutality of colonialism and socio-political inequality. While addressing such subjects, the curatorial approach manages to move away from provocation. Rather, through works that are subtle and thus need more time to be mulled over, the presentation encourages the conscious mind of the viewer to contemplate their relationship with the works and the world. Easing off on the grand aesthetics, the biennale lets the context of the works speak for themselves in a more poetic manner.
Through the biennale, the Artistic Director Sook Kyung Lee uses the metaphorical means of water as a curatorial methodology in order to demonstrate how such an element can be an agent of change in unifying the society. Starting from the idea of how humanity, living together on one planet, sees the world through multiple perspectives, Lee goes on to compare people to water, passive and weak when in small numbers, but powerful as ever when assembled, with the capacity to challenge and change existing power structures.
The first work that welcomes the visitors to Gwangju Biennale exhibition hall is Buhlebezwe Siwani’s large scale site-specific installation that takes up the entire floor of the entrance. It is made up of elements such as soil gathered on the floor, ropes hanging from the ceiling, and The Spirits Descend (Yehla Moya) (2022) - a video work that depicts the spirits that take up space in nature, such as in the water and mountains. Though it looks sturdy, the soil is soft to touch, reminiscent of the ashes of the deceased returning to earth, while the ropes connect the living and the dead. The artist is a spiritual healer herself in South Africa, and the installation centers around her body as a main medium, addressing patriarchy in the context of having to conduct ancestry rituals as a black woman. The installation is rich with the many subjects raised in the Ancestral Voices section, including rituals, alchemy, spirits, and healing.
“This is about healing our spirits, the spirits of our ancestors and recognizing the power in what our land has gifted to us so that we can heal.”
- Buhlebezwe Siwani
Seeing in it the most universal connections between the works and judging it to be curatorially the most coherent, eazel explores the 14th Gwangju Biennale by focusing on the ancestral concept. The following highlights of the Ancestral Voices section cover a wide range of mediums and geographies in an attempt to draft a holistic perspective of the world, just as the biennale intended.
Calling back his Huastec ancestors from the 16th century, who lost their lives due to slavery and diseases brought by the European colonizers, Noé Martínez draws the viewer’s attention to the history of the indigenous peoples in the Huastecan region in the Gulf of Mexico. Entering the space of Ancestry Voices, Martínez’ Bunch 3 (Racimo 3) (2022) is one of the first works seen by the viewers. The installation consists of eleven sculptures on the ground and another sculpture hanging from the ceiling, all made with ceramic, porcelain, oxide slip, and cotton ropes. Believing that sounds play an important role in communicating with the ancestors, Martínez performed a ritual in the opening event with his voice, weaving the echoes through the sculptures. This performance, which was a ceremony to invite the ancestors to the site and heal their souls, completely ignited the space.
With the vibrant red embedded in contracting black, Abdoulaye Konaté presents three textile works using the dyeing techniques indigenous to Mali, where the artist lives and works. Konaté delves into global issues involving power struggles, ecology, and religion. These subjects are also personal to him, with Mali’s history of colonization by the French, and the ongoing civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country. Symbolizing sacrifice, danger, and courage, red is the most prominent color in The Red and the Black and the Signs (Le Rouge et le Noir et les Signes) (2018), paying tributes to those who passed away during the violent turmoils. The presence of shades of black in Ebony and Scars (Noir d’ébène et cicatrices) (2021) speaks in contrasting ways. Amidst its messages, one is that of death and grief, mourning all the sacrifices made by the ancestors, and the other is that of power and elegance, for the protection of one’s community.
With her near hour-long video work titled At the Eagles (Tsumikh) (2023) that uses elements of sculpture and performance, the Russia-born Taus Makhacheva addresses the notion of ancestry from a unique angle. Much of the work deals with her late grandfather, Rasul Gamzatov, who was a popular poet in the Soviet Union. Born in 1923 in the district of Dagestan, Rasul Gamzatov was highly celebrated while he was alive, and his legacy continues to date as part of the collective memory of the Russian people. Interested in the intersection of the ownership of personal stories and the public interest, Makhacheva layers voices and opinions of different characters in her work, from art handlers to police officers. Somewhat fantastical, yet set in the real world, the work excavates the ethical issues around the autonomy of one’s narrative once one is deceased.
A senior woman of Anangu (Aboriginal Australian groups), ngangkari (healer), and artist, Betty Muffler’s works involve painting, drawing, and weaving with tjanpi (grass). Most of the skills Muffler uses in her general life and artistic practice were passed down to her from older generations. These include learning how to care for each other during hardship. The British destroyed a large portion of South Australia in the 1950s by testing atomic weapons, exposing the Aboriginal people to radiation and leading to early death of entire families in many cases. Through Healing Country (Ngangkari Ngura), 2019, Muffler attempts to navigate through the spirits of the ancestors and look after their souls, paying them respect.
“My paintings are about ngangkari (traditional healing practices) and sites related to healing. I’ve painted rock holes and the water flows through the landscape, just like the energy that flows through people and places - it’s invisible to most people but ngangkari can see spirits and feel a lot of different energy.”
- Betty Muffler
Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai’s two bodies of work, Spiral Incense Mantra-Heart Sutra (2023) and A Temple, A Shrine, A Mosque, A Church (2022) take up a large portion of the exhibition space in the Ancestral Voices section. The hand-produced Spiral Incense Mantra-Heart Sutra is made up of light brown twisted coils of incense with the surface covered in Buddhist scripture, while poems by Sufi women poets are written in gold ink on hand-woven mats in A Temple, A Shrine, A Mosque, A Church. The consequences of Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese colonial history is a complex matter for the Taiwanese people, and a deeply personal subject for the artist. Investigating the relationship between herself as an individual within the bigger geopolitical context, Tsai contemplates her identity through performative writing in her sculptural installations that utilize various organic materials.
Mirroring Noé Martínez’s ritualistic sculptures, and wrapping up the Ancestral Voices section is Edgar Calel’s installation The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge (Ru k’ ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el) (2023). The display of various fruits and vegetables on stones evokes ceremonies for ancestors that can be witnessed in many cultures and religions, including the sraddha rite in Hinduism, Vodun rituals in West African countries such as Ghana, and the Charye ceremony in Korea. Martínez is motivated by personal and collective experiences of commemorating rituals tributed toward the ancestors in San Juan Comalapa in Guatemala, where honoring the dead is a significant part for the living. The floor installation faces a work on paper titled Here are the elves that you left seeded in our hearts (Babe e k’o ri tz’ula xa a tik kan pa qa K’ux) (2023), which plays the role of a shrine. Drawn from Calel’s childhood memory, the work depicts his grandmother’s house in a gesture to pay respect to the legacy of his grandmother, and contains words written in the Kaqchikel language to communicate with and honor his Kaqchikel ancestors.
The 14th Gwangju Biennale is ongoing until Jul 9, 2023. For more information, please visit here.